Saturday, 22 August 2009


I completed a project in my third year at university called Perfume; the name, as you'll realize, refers to the book by Patrick Suskind. I was handed a brief at uni which asked me to take a novel, read it and consider the content. The final outcome had to present the content of the book, either in its entirety or just a selection, in an interesting and relevant way.

The film (which I recommend if you've not seen it) built up an atmosphere of smells using vivid images of food and grime, silks and powders, and so on and I felt that perhaps it would be interesting to explore the huge number (317) of perfumes, aromas and stenches that occur throughout the text. Not only are they impressively varied, from ‘stale dust’ to ‘the exhaled breath of thousands of hymn-singing and Ave Maria-mumbling throats’, the words themselves can be refreshingly unusual; ‘rhododendron’, ‘opopanax’ and ‘patchouli’.

As I was thumbing through and collecting the smells, it occurred to me how difficult it must have been for Suskind not to become repetitive when introducing each new olfactory sensation. I felt it necessary to go back and, this time, look out for every synonym for the word ‘smell’ that Suskind uses. So, by the end, I had 191 different words or expressions to substitute ‘smell’ and 317 words that described what the smell was.

With my selected content, I went to work looking for a way to present it. Most of the work had already been done; the content was an interesting collection of words, each of which holds olfactory significance. All that was needed was a way to keep them together that was meaningful and justified. This image shows one of many little tests I made; I explored the idea of cutting book pages in ways that would allow for inner pages, mini pages or even books inside books. Each page, in this test, has a sentence on it like ‘the foul stench of rotting cheese’. On turning part of the page, the reader creates a new sentence like ‘the beautiful stench of rotting cheese’, ‘the obnoxious odour of rotting cheese’ or ‘the obnoxious odour of sour milk’.

Page numbers cover the whole of the page so the reader can see what the sentence should be originally by putting the pages back until the shapes of the numerals line up. This also adds an interesting visual outcome when the pages are turned out of sync – the graphic forms of the numerals break up and form new accidental shapes.

The sentence itself is set with an altered version of Garamond – Suskind describes a smell as a ribbon at one point in the book which I felt could be a fitting typographic device. So I added to every letter in the Garamond family a small ribbon-like arm at the front and back and put the words and sentences together by lining up each letter manually.

Finally I had to face up to the harsh reality and print a mock-up that would suggest a final outcome for the brief, using all of my content (317 and 191 are bigger numbers than they seem). The image here shows my mock-up, an A5 sized book which takes forward the idea of pages with smaller pages cut into them.

The close-up image hopefully shows you how the book would work. The reader can flick through the smaller pages on the inside or the larger page, and find new variations of words and phrases – which, incidentally, always make sense no matter what combination is chosen. The reason I decided to put down three choices of sentences to each page was because of the way perfumes are, according to the book, created; they have three ‘chords’ which, themselves, are made of three ‘notes’. You may ask why I didn't put nine sentences on each page – I don't know anymore! I'm sure there was a reason but it's no matter, as the final outcome to the brief was actually quite a simple re-think of my mock-up. I had, all along, been experimenting with making two/three/four books inside one. I knew I had two sets of information so why not make two books? This would also make the task of binding the books easier, as it would have been tricky trying to bind a book with pages that only meet the spine at, say, the middle inch.

The final product is a set of two books which can be read together, side by side (one has the content ranged-right, the other ranged-left) so that, when the pages are flicked through by the readers hands in the middle, the books offer up thousands of new sentences – only one word/phrase is printed on each page and nothing else. The ribbon-typeface was dropped for its time consuming need to be handled manually but I managed to make up for that with a final touch of purple to the rather bold box cover colour. The ribbon was folded three times to allude to the three chords of a perfume – the smaller details count, no?

In the end I was well aware of what could have been done differently and what could be improved. The typeface used for the final books, Univers, is a very safe choice and would, I think, have been bettered by the altered Garamond with its ribbon-like quality. I had little choice over paper stock where I was making the book so, again, I'm sure if there was an ideal response to the content that I chose, it would have used a more suitable paper-stock. This all tells me that perhaps there is never one perfect response to a brief but millions of very good ones; the designer need only make the most of his surroundings and make the most of himself.

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